The Stealth Assault on Reproductive Rights

Katha Pollitt

According to new HHS regulations, you can have an "abortion" without even being pregnant.

When pro-choicers accuse anti-choicers of being anti-contraception
they’re often taken as crying wolf — even though no anti-choice
organization explicitly endorses birth control and despite the
prominent anti-choice role of the Catholic Church, which explicitly
bans contraception. After all, goes the complacent point of view, most
women, and most couples, use some form of birth control. Opposition to
it seems like something out of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a
novel whose futuristic vision of women’s subjection to rightwing
Christian patriarchs no less a shrewd social critic than Mary McCarthy
found preposterous when she reviewed it in the New York Times Book
Review in 1986.

The Bush Administration seems bent on giving Atwood material for a sequel. Last month, Health and Human Services issued a draft
of new regulations which would require health-care providers who
receive federal funds to accept as employees nurses and other workers
who object to abortion and even to most kinds of birth control. This
rule would cover some 500,000 hospitals, clinics, and other medical
facilities — including family planning clinics, which would, absurdly,
legally be bound to hire people who will obstruct their very mission.
To refuse to hire them, or to fire them, would be to lose funds for
discriminating against people who object to abortion for religious or
— get this — moral beliefs.

This represents quite an expansion of health workers’ longstanding
right not to be involved in abortion. And, incidentally, this respect
for moral beliefs only goes one way. A Catholic hospital has no
corresponding obigation to hire pro-choice workers or accomodate their
moral beliefs by permitting them to offer emergency contraception to
rape victims or hand out condoms to the HIV positive; a "crisis
pregnancy center" would not have to hire pro-choice counsellors who
would tell women that abortion would not really give them breast cancer
or leave them sterile. Only anti-choicers, apparently, have moral
beliefs that entitle them to jobs they refuse to actually perform.

There are several disturbing elements to this story. One is that even
as it fades into history, the Bush Administration is catering to the
anti-choice movement’s larger agenda of making contraception harder to
obtain. What Bush can’t give them legislatively, he’ll provide
administratively, in bits and pieces, under cover of granting workers
rights of conscience (the only workers’ rights he seems to care about).
Remember when it seemed just plain bizarre that a pharmacist could
refuse to fill a woman’s prescription for emergency contraception or
even the Pill? Now pharmacists have that explicit right in four states,
and possibly in five more.

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Bureaucratic rules and regulations may seem arcane — how many nurses
who think the Pill "kills babies" want to work in family-planning
clinics? Actually, they have far-reaching effects. For example, the HHS
regulations could invalidate state laws requiring hospitals to offer
emergency contraception to rape victims. Moreover, the importance of
regulations goes way beyond the actual number of people they affect
directly. They shape both how we think of rights and how we decide what
normal behavior is. As it becomes more accepted for health care workers
to inflict their moral judgments on patients, and customers, the burden
shifts onto women seeking care. Instead of asking "What gives the
pharmacist the right to refuse to fill her prescription?" and "Why
should a birth-control clinic be forced to employ a nurse who won’t
give out the Pill?" the question becomes "Why can’t she go to another
drugstore or come back to the clinic another day"?

As the blogger Amanda Marcotte argues,
antichoicers know they can’t ban contraception, but they can redefine
it as a lifestyle drug, a luxury, rather than a medical necessity that
gets a lot of credit for modern women’s good health and longevity.
Amazingly, Bill O’Reilly is not the only person who thinks health
insurance plans should pay for Viagra but not for the Pill. If you
can’t afford birth control, just don’t have sex, you hussy! The next
Administration may not find it so easy to turn this mindset around, and
if McCain wins, I doubt it will even try. McCain himself, as I’ve noted
before, has a longstanding record of votes against abortion and birth
control — 125 out of 130 votes in Congress and Senate. The man has a 0% rating from NARAL. That he is widely regarded as a "moderate" on
reproductive rights is truly incredible.

Another dangerous feature of the proposed rules is that they redefine
contraception as abortion. Standard medical authorities define abortion
as something that takes place after you become pregnant, that is, after
a fertilized egg implants in your womb and sets off a cascade of
physical changes in your body. The HHS draft changes all that. It
defines abortion as "any procedures, including prescription drugs, that
result in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between
conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.’"
According to these rules, you can have an "abortion" without even being
pregnant. (The Pill, emergency contraception, and the IUD mostly work by
preventing ovulation and fertilization, but anti-choice advocates argue
that they prevent implantation, and it is not yet possible to say with
100 percent certainty that this never, ever happens.) These are the
knots we get tied up in when religious ideology replaces sound science.

Don’t let the Bush administration take away women’s right to get legal
reproductive health care in a timely and respectful fashion. Support
Hillary Clinton and Patty Murray, who are leading the fight in the
Senate by emailing your senators here.
Better yet, send them a real letter, on paper. As for Congress, so far
only 100 Representatives — fewer than one in four — have signed a
letter protesting the changes. Call or write yours and demand that they
join you in the 21st century.

This article was first published by The Nation

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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